Notes from a Warming World

Temperature Gauge

From Friend to Foe

Canada’s massive forests are typically thought of as an ally in halting global climate change, since the trees absorb and store billions of tons of carbon dioxide. But this ecological asset may have become a liability. According to a Canadian government researcher, the forests are now a net emitter of CO2.

“Since 1999, and especially in the last five years, the forests have shifted from being a carbon sink to a carbon source,” Werner Kurz, a research scientist at the Canadian Forest Service, told the Chicago Tribune.

Warming temperatures have dried out the forests, making them more susceptible to fires that release huge amounts of carbon. The plague of pine beetles is also contributing to emissions as the infestation leads to tree deaths.

When a tree dies, it stops sequestering carbon and begins giving it off. Given the scale of Canada’s forests, this marks an ominous tipping point. The Canadian forests store roughly 186 billion tons of carbon – the equivalent of all the carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels since about 1982.

Security Risk

Of course, one has to be careful not to miss the forest for the trees. Climate change threatens not only to stress ecosystems, but also the many nation-states that already are maxing out their environmental resources.

A US intelligence report released last year warns that climate change-related droughts, freshwater scarcities, and food shortages will contribute to geopolitical instability in the coming decades. China and the countries of sub-Saharan Africa are especially at risk, according to the National Intelligence Council.

“Climate change, we concluded, is not by itself going to bring down any government,” Thomas Fingar, the report’s lead author, says. “It is not going to lead to wars.” But in the case of “already stressed and strained and failing and flailing governments and states … this well could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.”

US national security planners also face some more practical problems: There are 63 military installations in danger of being flooded due to storm surges from extreme weather.

Forecast: Lawsuits

The United Nations has systems set up for countries to compensate each other for damages due to nuclear power accidents, oil spills, and even debris from objects falling from outer space. But what about the victims of global climate change? A new report by the World Wildlife Fund-UK says the UN needs a way to compensate countries that suffer climate change-related casualties, or run the risk of a tangle of billion-dollar lawsuits.

“It makes more sense to come up with a system, rather than people starting to litigate,” says Peter Roderick, director of the Climate Justice Program and a co-author of the report.

Lawsuits may already be on the horizon. The Pacific island nation of Tuvalu once floated the idea of suing the US for rising sea levels connected to carbon emissions.

The Federated States of Micronesia have been lobbying since 1991 to set up an International Climate Fund insurance mechanism. Experts predict that tens of billions of dollars will be needed to help nations cope with the dislocations of shifting weather.

photo of a frozen landscape Christina GarrottClimate skeptics say snow in Kentucky means we
don’t have to worry about climate change.

“Potential claims for compensation could be way above any precedented damage in the past,” says Kit Vaughan, an advisor at the WWF-UK.

Global Warming Is Over (If You Want It)

A cold snap in Southeast Asia. A severe blizzard in China. Record-low temperatures in International Falls, Minnesota. According to David Deming – a prominent climate change denier whose think tank has received money from ExxonMobil – this is all evidence that “environmental extremists and global warming alarmists” are dead wrong that human actions are altering the weather.

In an op-ed in The Washington Times, Deming writes: “To the extent that global warming ever existed, it is now officially over.”

Depends on what your definition of “officially” is. NASA’s Goddard Institute reports that while 2008 was slightly cooler than recent years, it still ranks as either the seventh or twelfth (because of the uncertainty of readings) warmest year since 1880. Yes, 2008 was the second coldest (after 2000) in a decade. But given that the last decade has been by far the warmest on record, that’s not saying much.

For the record, Deming does not study the atmosphere. He is a professor of geology at the University of Oklahoma, and one who apparently has his head stuck in the sand.

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